Papua New Guinea will sign a security pact with the United States that gives American troops access to the Pacific nation’s ports and airports, its leader said Thursday, as Washington jostles for influence in the region with Beijing.
US President Joe Biden has placed more importance on the Pacific over concerns about an increasingly assertive China, which is trying to woo nations with an array of diplomatic and financial incentives in return for strategic support.
Prime Minister James Marape said two agreements focusing on defense cooperation and maritime surveillance had been agreed with Washington and would be formally signed at the earliest opportunity after parliamentary approval.
“We are elevating to a specific defence cooperation agreement, something that is falling short of a treaty,” he told a press conference.
“We are moving ahead, we are signing with the best military on the face of planet Earth.”
The agreements, which can be renewed every 15 years, will give the United States vital movement in Papua New Guinea’s waters near sea routes to Australia and Japan, in return for access to US satellite surveillance, he said.
“It now gives us an opportune time to focus not just on maritime access but satellite access on… illegal activities on the high sea,” Marape said.
A leaked draft version of the defense cooperation agreement showed American forces would have broad autonomy at some of the country’s key entry points, but Marape said any access would have to be approved by his government.
“The ports, the infrastructure… will not in any way stand to be exclusively used by the military,” he said.
“They would always be asking our defence to have access to our facilities.”
Biden — whose uncle died in Papua New Guinea in the Second World War — cancelled a historic first visit to the most populous South Pacific nation next week because of domestic debt ceiling crisis talks.
Marape said Secretary of State Antony Blinken would instead attend the summit with Pacific leaders in Port Moresby on Monday.
Looking forward to traveling to Papua New Guinea, where I will meet with Pacific Islands Forum @ForumSEC leaders to advance key regional and global issues. Also pleased to meet Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Marape again to discuss a range of bilateral issues.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 18, 2023
Washington is courting Pacific nations more intensely after the Solomon Islands became the unlikely epicentre of a diplomatic tussle between the United States and China last year when it signed a security pact with Beijing.
Marape said Papua New Guinea’s pact with Washington would not prevent it from negotiating such deals with other nations, including China.